Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie will be remembered by history as the first ambitious project entirely written and produced during the catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic. The lofty aspirations of such an endeavor are also obvious in the bombastic—even loud—pronouncements and musings about the meaning of art and life of its two titular characters, as telegraphed by John David Washington and Zendaya. But Levinson’s script does not quite reach the heights for which it aims. It is, instead, the stunningly personal and disturbingly believable performance by the child singer turned star actress that makes this film worth the price of admission.
The film begins with a still black and white take on the impressive “Caterpillar House” by Feldman’s Architecture in Monterey County, California. While the interiors have been beautifully rendered by production designer Michael Grasley, who worked in the homebound set of Levison’s prior writer/director project, Assassination Nation, here we are treated only to its glassy, steely, but ultra-modern outside presence. As the credits roll Billy Wilder style (the “show-off my Hollywood history knowledge” script later makes obvious that Wilder is a Levinson muse), headlights approach quietly in the distance. The two main characters—the film’s only ones—are returning home, late, from the premiere of a movie directed by Malcolm and, we later learn, inspired by his younger lover, Marie. The beautiful stillness is peaceful yet deceiving. Trouble is amiss. The passionate fury that resides inside the two characters, ready to burst, is about to shatter the quiet solitude of the beautiful home’s exterior. It will remind you, soon enough, of the anger, and the madness, of most Edward Albee characters.
There is much to admire about undertaking this sort of project in today’s world. On paper, it is nothing short of impressive to write a robust story about a traumatic and even abusive, codependent relationship between two egotistical, troubled souls. The most obvious of these victories comes in the aforementioned sets in the Feldman house. Grasley constructs the settings for the various rooms with precise vision, alternating between beautiful, ornate and luxurious decoration and a messy disarray—a juxtaposition that plainly is a proxy for the very souls of the protagonists.
By contrast, one would probably skip Marcell Rev’s intimate but ultimately unnecessary black and white cinematography. It reeks, as so much of the script does, of trying too hard. If the idea was to focus on the words coming out of the characters’ mouths rather than the palette surrounding them, it failed. The effect is the opposite—to constantly distract you into wondering why this choice was made in the first place.
Still, production value achievements amidst a pandemic do not a good movie make. Causal viewers, not to mention future generations, will not necessarily appreciate that Washington and Zendaya had to apply their own makeup or pick out their own costumes. They are unlikely to give the film a free pass simply because of its high degree of execution difficulty—nor should they. Malcolm & Marie, for all its impressive feats, is messy, perhaps too full of itself, to be entirely persuasive.
As the drama seesaws between the quarrels and trysts, we learn that Marie is a drug addict embittered because she was neither thanked during Malcolm’s valediction nor cast in the principal role she helped inspire. Marie is genuinely suffering and Malcolm’s boundless selfishness (more on that later) genuinely causes her pain. Zendaya is without question the best part of this picture, oscillating quickly but convincingly between sadness and madness, between anger and joy, between tears and cheers, in ways that few actresses manage to achieve and maintain for such long, uninterrupted sequences. It is even more so given that there is only one other person to ever share the camera with. Zendaya as Marie’s an “acting while acting” mental breakdown scene towards the middle of the film’s tension is perhaps one of the most well-acted scenes of the year. This is the young star’s breakout role and sets high expectations for future greatness from her.
Malcolm, meanwhile, is self-involved to the point of insecurity. He rants and raves madly about conversations with and writings by film critics, about his movie and about movies, race, and power. This sort of self-referential paean against critics typically denotes the author’s own insecurity about receptive ambivalence to his work. Here, though Levinson tries to dress up his complaints as wherein the garb of urgency over racial issues involving black filmmakers and white critics, the emperor has no clothes. Malcolm’s disjointed and incoherent focus on this problem betrays that it is all pretext for Levinson’s own gripe, seeping unsubtly through. Washington, as excellent as he is in this role, becomes less interesting (through no fault of his own) than his astounding counterpart—his character’s role as a vessel for the director’s own meandering movie politics doom him.
Malcolm & Marie is, thus, not into a back and forth between two lovers, tyrannical against one another in ways compelling to an audience. Instead, it devolves into a frustrating ping-pong between an interesting, nuanced character, and a flat one; between a genuinely sympathetic, suffering and misunderstood young girl (who is equal parts bewitching and disturbing), and a man who evokes little genuine emotion in the first place. Perhaps the thirst to fill a runtime made Levinson unaware of the at times repetitive and at times shrill nature of his script. Perhaps the messy, explosive style that was so alluring from Assassination Nation was a flaw, not a feature of the author’s work. Or perhaps the construct of an author and his muse turning on each other is not as original or even as interesting as Levinson thought.
Whatever the reason, Malcolm & Marie ends up lesser than the sum of its expertly acted and beautifully crafted parts but could carry Zendaya to many awards trophies in a few months’ time.
All photos courtesy of Netflix; photographer: Dominic Miller